Space | Place | Haste

First: Haste
Do you ever want to tell people to freakin' slow down?

Warning: this post is really random and covers about six topics.

I think this idea alone significantly spurs on my love for the elderly. Perhaps I've written on here before of my devotion to old-man-professors. (My husband will be one soon enough after all.) I completed my entire undergrad degree under the tutelage of an 80-year-old spiritual genius who swam in the school pool every morning at 5am. My favorite professors in seminary were the soft-spoken grandpas. My favorite congregants in the church are the cranky and authoritative, but supremely loving senior women. I preached a sermon once at PMC and the opening line was "Old people rock my world."--it was a very young congregation. With life comes experience comes wisdom comes a level of self-security that the rest of us only dream of. Maybe this is one reason, aside from the brittle bones, that you rarely need to tell a senior citizen to slow down. If we are not going to take the time to listen, then the loss is ours. I want NYC to get this holy concept.

Enter The Riverside Church.

I won't take time speaking of its architectural splendor, Rockefeller's endowment, her majestic organ and carillon, nor do I plan to take up your time with stories of limestone carvings that can bring tears to your eyes, a golden Jesus suspended from the ceiling, and the pulpiteers who positioned it on the ecclesial map of churches to follow. It's all on the website anyway. The parts of this community that I most love and adore are the elderly members doing their best to keep it alive.

As I just begin to process the sixteen months of my employment in this community (I wrote that cover letter after all so many months ago), and as I view the stained glass of the Nave first thing from my bedroom windows every morning, I am struck time and again at the amount of space the building itself covers on Manhattan Island.

Second: Space
Remember there is no room on Manhattan, at least not unless you have a small (or gigantic) fortune to actually afford housing here. Most of Manhattan-ites live in nooks so small, in buildings so high it leaves the rest of the country stunned dizzy. Side note: We managed to find one small cranny of Central Park where if you situate your eyes at a specific perspective during the proper time of blossoming Spring with your body half-reclined into a contortion underneath a willow tree, there are not any skyscrapers in view. It's actually quite astounding for the fraction of a second that you can hold the twisted pose. Compare this to the view from the top of 30 Rock. (I refuse to pay the fee to elevate up to the peak of the Empire State Building.) The buildings that stand so majestic, threatening to pierce the sky, even a tree cannot block from view, from below they quickly shrink from the peak of one still taller. Yet, from the top of 30 Rock one can view in the northwesterly direction the spires of the Riverside tower as it borders the Hudson River. Something so triumphant and erect looks small and fragile. We lose this perspective in the haste of our daily living here in NYC. Everything around us becomes bigger than life--I wonder if because our time and space is so minimal.

One more bus to catch, subway doors to hold ajar, taxis to hail, groceries to manhandle for three more blocks, kids to bark across the avenue, complete strangers offering advice on how to parent, wind whipping your scarf in ways that blind you...the exhilaration and energy bustling in the streets literally never stops. I love it. But the rushing gets tiresome. The crowds overwhelming. The difficulty of running errands difficult to negotiate. So much so, that one easily loses perspective on the ways the rest of the world meanders about. It often makes me want to recreate the Ferris Bueller Sears Tower scene with forehead pressed against a glass panel a mile up in the sky to silence the busyness below into ant-like maneuvers of survival. That's what the top of 30 Rock does. You can only escape life-of-crazy by going up.

Until you meet the senior citizen residents of Manhattan.

Moving up the crowded sidewalks of Broadway with a walker immediately slows your world down to normalcy. Crossing a mega-avenue with a shuffling friend in icy weather creates more time to see all that I miss when chasing the kids on their scooters. Understanding the time that elapses between destination points when entering a crowded bus with a wheelchair only occurs to me when I'm inconvenienced by it as a fellow rider. Noticing the mundane of life sometimes feels next to impossible here. And yet, I claim that the simplicity of life is where I see God. No wonder I have missed this while living here, yes God and simplicity. My friends at Riverside have unknowingly done well to keep this alive for me on our lunch outings and through conversations about the trials of urban dwelling for those who are differently abled, but unable to leave the island.

Can one still find enough space and
can one slow down their haste enough to
create a sacred place in such a frenetic race

Third: Place
Wendell Berry is my brother's guru. (This and this are two blogs he started and maintains. That's him playing cricket with his King's College team in London on the second link.) Berry along with other great writers like Richard Rohr and Tich Nhat Hanh speak to the imperative of having a place--a home. In a reflection on the genius of Berry, after having spent an intimate Sunday afternoon with Wendell and his wife, Tonya, in the kitchen of their Kentucky farm home talking coal and other lofty agrarian topics, my brother writes the following,

We had been standing on the porch for several moments noticing the sheep on the southwest side of the house. We also noticed the vertical climb from the riverbank one must make to arrive on the porch...The aesthetics of the place reminded me of him, harangued, but in a good way. Everything here had a purpose and had been used and lived in. I aspire to live in my place as well as the Berry family appeared to live in theirs...When I put questions on the table I was consistently baffled by how smoothly he picked them up and dealt with them. We were sitting with a master of conversation. The work necessary for being as such had been done in the quiet of his own home and fields. It would be silly to try and name-drop and click through power point slides in his presence. Your only option is to be honest and thoughtful and, well, honest. As we sat in his kitchen for those several hours there was probably more silence than talking. It was ok to be quiet here. So often, there is nothing to say and yet we blandish each other with worthless chatter about how impressive we are. 

                                                        (Mr. Berry on his farm, Lanes Landing)

Might we all be so able and ready to create a place for people that welcomes silence, entertains new friends, and creatively speaks to the mystery of God at work. To think so deeply, live so consciously, and welcome so graciously proves daunting when we cannot slow down or find enough space to be ourselves, much less know ourselves. Unhurried living that celebrates community when it seems as if the space for such does not exist. As Berry taught this to Kyle, this is what the strident and savvy NY women at Riverside have helped me to learn and embrace. I'm convinced this is where God lives in Manhattan. Even if there is not enough space, God's place resides anyway. I'm glad to have met her here in this way of still, lingering lunch dates, intentional conversation, and ardent spirituality. What a surprise.

No comments: